Our Daily Planet: Coal Ash Making a Mess, SCOTUS Kicks the Frog Back Down, and Test Tube Tuna
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Toxic coal ash waste, the red material in the river bank, from Dynegy’s Vermilion Power Plant in Oakwood, Illinois, can be seen leaking into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Photo: Prairie Rivers Network

New Data Reveals Massive Coal Ash Leaks in Illinois

A new report released by Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club, revealed widespread pollution of the groundwater surrounding 90 percent of reporting Illinois coal ash dumpsites. As EcoWatch explained, the report is based on industry data made publicly available for the first time this year because of a requirement in federal coal ash regulations. It concludes that 22 of Illinois 24 coal ash dumpsites with available data have released toxic pollutants including arsenic, cobalt and lithium, into groundwater as well as dumping millions of pounds of pollution into lakes, rivers and streams each year. Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium, and arsenic and can cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.

The report explained that there are more than two dozen coal ash dumpsites spread across Illinois that contain over 80 individual ash ponds and landfills. Almost all of these ash dumps sit right next to rivers and lakes, separated from them only by thin earthen embankments. They are disproportionately located in communities with limited resources but pose a threat that extends far and wide. The vast majority of coal ash ponds in Illinois are unlined–just 2 of 35 reporting Illinois coal ash ponds have liners. This means there is little or nothing stopping the toxic pollution in those ash ponds from leaching into groundwater. 

Why This Matters: A 2015 Obama-era coal ash rule required utilities to start collecting groundwater data near coal ash dumps and in March is when the data became public for the first time. President Trump has actively moved to weaken Obama’s coal ash safeguards meaning that industry now has more leeway to self-regulate and gives more authority to industry-friendly state governments to loosely regulate coal ash waste. The Obama regulations were put in place to help keep people safe and rolling them back only helps the fossil fuel industry, certainly not Americans who may unsuspectingly be getting poisoned by their water. File this under “Not Making America Great Again.”



Photo: Joel Sartore, The Photo Ark, National Geographic
SCOTUS Holds That Critical Habitat Must Be Habitat

In a widely anticipated ruling on the meaning of a key provision of the Endangered Species Act, the Supreme Court unanimously voted 8-0 to send back to the court of appeals this case regarding whether the Fish and Wildlife Service went too far in designating critical habitat for the endangered dusky gopher frog. The lower court had earlier ruled that the Service was within its legal jurisdiction when it designated more than 1500 acres of forest on private land in Louisiana as critical habitat for the frog even though none of the frogs currently live on that land and it may need some habitat restoration for the frogs to survive there.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the court, “According to the ordinary understanding of how adjectives work, ‘critical habitat’ must also be ‘habitat….Only the ‘habitat’ of the endangered species is eligible for designation as critical habitat.”  The Supreme Court directed the lower court to look at the Administrative Record of the habitat designation created by the Service to determine whether the frogs could survive there now.  

Why This Matters:  Well, on the one hand, at least the frog gets another day in the lower court — it is, in the immortal words of Monty Python, “not dead yet!”  But pushing this case back down to the lower court seems to be just dragging out the inevitable negative decision on the habitat designation.  As The Wall Street Journal put it, “[t]he unanimous opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, held the hallmarks of a careful compromise on a case heard by an eight-member court before the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.”  When the case eventually comes back to the Supreme Court, it seems highly likely that Kavanaugh will side with the conservatives and the Court will find that the Fish and Wildlife Service cannot go to this length to save a species.  Atlernatiely, in the meantime, the Trump Administration might have decimated the critical habitat designation rules and just moot out the case.  Either way, the frog is probably on its last legs.  

To Go Deeper Into Frog Habitat:  We recommend this wonderful analysis of the decision by Lisa Heinzerling of SCOTUSblog.

 Climate Change and Air Pollution

Black Friday Climate Report: Air Quality and Transportation Impacts 

We continue with the “highlights” of the “Black Friday” Climate Report in its own words – today we summarize the impacts on air quality and the transportation sector.  The Report explains that already there is a “climate penalty” caused by increasing temperatures that cause ozone pollution to increase.  Thus there is “high confidence” that warming will worsen this problem, particularly in the already polluted areas — like big cities with lots of cars. Wildfires will also worsen air quality due to increased levels of particulate matter (soot) in the air.   Here is the report’s breakdown on air pollution and on the related transportation sector:
  • Worsened air pollution would increase the incidence of adverse respiratory and cardiovascular health effects, including premature death.
  • Increased air pollution would also have other environmental consequences, including reduced visibility and damage to agricultural crops and forests.
  • More frequent and severe wildfires due to climate change would further diminish air quality, increase incidences of respiratory illness from exposure to wildfire smoke, impair visibility, and disrupt outdoor recreational activities.
  • The frequency and severity of allergic illnesses, including asthma and hay fever, are likely to increase as a result of a changing climate.
  • Earlier spring arrival, warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation, and higher carbon dioxide concentrations can increase exposure to airborne pollen allergens.
  • A reliable, safe, and efficient U.S. transportation system is at risk from increases in heavy precipitation, coastal flooding, heat, wildfires, and other extreme events, as well as changes to average temperature. 
  • Future changes in climate will lead to increasing transportation challenges, particularly because of system complexity, aging infrastructure, and dependency across sectors.
Why This MattersAccording to the Report, “[m]ore than 100 million people in the United States live in communities where air pollution exceeds health-based air quality standards.”  But the flip side to this equation is that because greenhouse gas emissions are also harmful air pollutants, if we reduce those emissions, we both slow warming and its impacts and reduce the harm to public heath by cleaning the air.  Transportation is the backbone of our economy and so its vulnerability to climate impacts could have very detrimental impacts on productivity and prosperity.  But it is also true that the transportation sector, with its heavy dose of engineers and planners, is already beginning to address these issues in today’s transportation systems.  

And OH, BTW, the President’s climate skepticism is certainly precipitating a much greater public awareness of the Black Friday Report and may be helping to educate a huge segment of the public on climate change as major news outlets call BS on his claims.  Tuesday he told The Washington Post that “You look at our air and our water and it’s right now at record clean.”  Huh?  One third of the population of the U.S. is breathing dirty air today.  Just because China’s air is dirtier does not make ours “record” clean.


Photo: USFS
California’s Exhausted Firefighters 

This year over 8.5 million acres, an area larger than Maryland, have burned in the United States so far. Wildfires have been relentless and California alone has experienced 7,485 of them so far in 2018. Combating these fires costs hundreds of millions (if not billions when all is said and done) yet the human cost to firefighters is often overlooked. As Frank Lima, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), explained to NPR, in firefighting, overtime work is expected in order to respond to emergencies and ensure that a station is fully staffed. In recent years, though, the use of overtime has ballooned in many departments due to staffing issues, heightened by the increasing frequency and destructiveness of California’s wildfires. The L.A. Times recently looked at overtime data from the LA County Fire Department and found that overtime costs had surged 36 percent in recent years.

A longer fire season means that fire crews are often working for over a month straight with no time off. Strike teams generally are deployed for 2-week shifts but if firefighters can continue, local department will hold them for another seven days, matching the 21-day deployment that Cal Fire firefighters serve.  Many firefighters are imploring California’s governor (Jerry Brown and soon to be Gavin Newsom) to increase the state’s fire budget so that more firefighters can be hired. Aside from the physical exhaustion, the mental exhaustion and PTSD is very real as well. As Lima added “We see charred dead bodies. There’s certain smells we never forget. There’s certain sounds of screaming we never get out of our heads years later.”

Why This Matters: These massive wildfires are unsustainable in just about every regard. California has already exhausted its fire budget this year and fire crews barely had any time to rest in between fires. 2018 was a preview of what future years will look like unless we actively work to abate climate change and seriously focus on fire preparedness plans. 


Photo: Mass Audubon
Frozen Sea Turtles Wash Ashore in New England

Almost 200 sea turtles who were still swimming off of Cape Cod have frozen to death due to a cold spell over Thanksgiving. As Mass Audubon Director, Bob Prescott, told CNN, 227 cold-stunned turtles were recovered from the Gulf of Maine since Wednesday, but only 54 lived. Mass Audubon, the largest nature conservation nonprofit in Massachusetts, regularly patrols the beaches this time of year looking for cold-stunned turtles. Prescott said that the deaths were largely attributable to climate change as the Gulf of Maine prior to 2010 was too cold for sea turtles to come into. 

When sea turtles are stuck in rapidly cooling waters, they can fall victim to a potentially lethal condition called “cold stunning” according to NOAA. As average temperatures warm, sea turtles are swimming farther north and when rapid cold snaps occur, they become overwhelmed and often die as a result of being cold-blooded animals. As Wallace J. Nichols, a research associate at California Academy of Sciences and sea turtle biologist told NBC,  “Climate change is impacting sea turtles very clearly,” adding that “cooked” turtle eggs caused by warmer waters has affected the animals’ migration patterns both ways.

Why This Matters: When human-caused climate change affects beloved species like polar bears or sea turtles the headlines grab people’s attention. However, our actions cause harm and lead to the extinction of animals very regularly, as made evident by a recent WWF report showing that we’ve caused global wildlife populations to plummet by 60% in the last 4 decades. We’re likely the last generation that can do something about biodiversity loss so it’s important that we focus not just on charismatic species but our impact on all animals and what we can do help slow biodiversity loss. 

Go Deeper, Get Sadder:  While it’s unclear why this tragic event occurred, 145 whales were recently stranded on a remote New Zealand beach. 



Beakers hold culture samples that Finless Foods is developing into bluefin tuna meat at Finless Foods.
Photo: Nick Otto, for The Washington Post
Test Tube Tuna

The Washington Post Food section profiled a new company called Finless Foods that is entering the foods of the future realm — this one is working to make blue fin tuna from cells in a lab.  Amazingly, the Finless team is growing bluefin tuna cells without the tuna itself, its habitat, and without the fish it feeds upon. ​​The scientists at Finless have already figured out how to grow three kinds of tissues from bluefin stem cells: muscle, fat and connective tissue. And they even say they can create synthetic fish meat with the right amount of fat to have the lush flavor of otoro tuna.  Now all they need to do is get their synthetic bluefin tuna to mimic the flavor, color and healthy omega-3 fatty acids that make it so desireable!
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